A member of the cluster-B ‘dramatic’ personality disorders has established its presence as a scapegoat for Jerry Sandusky’s lewd behavior and sickening molestation of children. According to his defense psychologist, Sandusky suffers from Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). In order to figure where this pseudo-rationalization and excuse comes from, we must first dissect the personality disorder itself.
To be histrionic means to be dramatic and so this disorder is aptly named. Those suffering from HPD are often attributed to the phrase “making mountains out of mole holes.” They crave sympathy and attention – to such an embellished extent that they manipulate and fabricate situations so as to fulfill their overwhelming desire to feel needed. Since they are most often beleaguered with a sense of inadequacy and dependency in their daily lives, a histrionic may create a theatrical outburst at the slightest pretense. Not to be confused with Borderline Personality Disorder, HPD is characterized by dramatic outbursts, extreme sensitivity, and exaggeration. Conversation with a histrionic is usually centered around themselves or the latest gossip, portraying speech devoid of details and depth but symptomatically impressionistic and emotionally superficial. They long for approval and their self-esteem arises from an attention-seeking and pervasive pattern of persistent manipulation – not self-worth.
Typically, this personality disorder rears its head in early adulthood and its origin is unknown, although some psychologists theorize a bio-psychosocial model of causation. There is no established solitary factor. It is possible inherited and genetic aspects may play a role. Some psychologists hypothesize a lack of punishment as a child or mixed criticisms may confuse a developing child as to what will elicit a positive, or any, response from the caregiver. Another generalization is the statistics: According to the World Health Organization, “HPD affects four times as many women as men1. It has a prevalence of 2–3% in the general population, and 10–15% in inpatient and outpatient mental health institutions2.” In truth, the proper prevalence is hard to purvey due to a lack of information on the topic and a seeking of treatment from the patient. Most people don’t see anything wrong with their behavior and they tend to rule out other possibilities before coming to the conclusion of HPD. In fact, a characteristic of the disorder is a lack of responsibility for their negative behaviors and actions, as well as a tendency to blame any failure or disappointment on others.
The psychologist’s guide to diagnosing this personality disorder, as well as other emotional and mental illnesses, the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) defines histrionic personality disorder as: ‘A pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- Is uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention
- Interaction with others is often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior
- Displays rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions
- Consistently uses physical appearance to draw attention to self
- Has a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail
- Shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion
- Is suggestible, i.e., easily influenced by others or circumstances
- Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are
These traits are also easily remembered by incorporation into the mnemonic “PRAISEME”:
- Provocative (or seductive) behavior
- Relationships are considered more intimate than they actually are
- Influenced easily
- Speech (style) wants to impress; lacks detail
- Emotional liability; shallowness
- Make-up; physical appearance is used to draw attention to self
- Exaggerated emotions; theatrical2,4
A sniffle is terminal. There’s nothing wrong? – make something wrong. Going to get a gallon of milk at the grocery? – put on the high heels and curl that hair. Nothing interesting happened on the walk home? – oh, the cashier definitely flirted with me and I got a really great discount because of it.
Typically, those suffering from histrionic personality disorder can answer yes to the following questions:
- Do you put a lot of effort into demonstrating what you’re good at?
- Do you feel compelled to act on an impulse?
- Do other people find it hard to get what you mean?
- Do you feel like you have to work hard to get someone’s approval and they still criticize you in the end anyway?
Does this sound like Jerry Sandusky? Who knows? It’s difficult to ascertain. Because the criterion is subjectively abstract and currently there is no concrete test, people may be misdiagnosed with other disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or their behavior may chalk up to be “that’s just the way they are”.
My opinion doesn’t mean much but I think Sandusky’s psychologists just took a personality disorder that most people aren’t familiar with, threw it out there, and ran with it. It’s a shame because some people really do suffer from this and attributing the disorder to a child molester does little to both raise positive awareness and create a broader range of acknowledgement.
“I’m trying to learn from, grow from, and endure the struggle and circumstances,” Mr. Sandusky wrote to the Scranton Times-Tribute concerning his conviction on allegations of child molestation. His mantra, he said, is “ENDURE“: Embrace each day as a gift, Never surrender except to God, Don’t let your situation get the best of you, Understand God’s purpose and presence, Remain as positive as possible, Exercise your mind, body and spirit.6”
Ok, Sandusky. A cute mnemonic neither changes my perspective nor dilutes my repugnance.
Do you know someone who may suffer from or has been diagnosed with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD)? They may be difficult to get along with. Check out my page on How to Deal With Histrionic People for tips on evolving a seemingly impossible standard of living to a possible, more tolerable one.
“Right now our focus is on the appeal. There is much to learn, issues and information not presented. Nobody who covered the case and reported it had the time or took the time to study the allegations, the accusers, the inconsistency, and the methods. Justice and fairness were not a focus – Jerry Sandusky (Scranton Times-Tribute).”
- Seligman, Martin E.P. (1984). “Chapter 11”. Abnormal Psychology. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-94459-X.
- “Chapter 16: Personality Disorders”. DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. American Psychiatric Publishing. 2000.
- “Chapter V: Mental and behavioral disorders (F00-F99)”. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10). World Health Organization. 2010. (F60.4)
- Pinkofsky, HB (September 1997). “Mnemonics for DSM-IV personality disorders”. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.) 48 (9): 1197–8. PMID 9285984. “Personality Disorders”. March 2001. Retrieved 2 May 2 2006.
- Scranton Times-Tribute http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/in-letter-to-newspaper-sandusky-says-he-s-trying-to-learn-from-struggle-1.1420327